A Canadian Corporation is Poisoning My Argentinian Community

We, the people of Jáchal, are fighting for the right to safe and clean water.

In 2015, hazardous mercury spills from the Veladero open-pit gold mine began endangering our way of life. Since then, we, the Jáchal No Se Toca Assembly, have been seeking justice to protect our water and the health of our people.

a drilling rig at a gold mine in winter with snow capped mountains in the background

A drilling rig at Barrick Gold’s Veladero Mine, in San Juan province, Argentina. The mine, which has had several toxic spills over the past decade, is located in a periglacial area, which is a violation of the country’s law on preserving glaciers and periglacial environments. Photo by GRITTA, Antonio / Wikimedia Commons.

The Veladero mine sits on the Potrerillos River at the headwaters of the Jáchal River in the province of San Juan, Argentina. It began operations on October 11, 2005 to produce doré bars (partially refined gold bars) and mercury. Operated by the Canadian mining company Barrick Gold, the open pit mine — which is co-owned by Shadong Gold Mining, a Chinese state-owned company — uses cyanide to extract minerals in the middle of the Andes Mountain Range.

The mine is close to the Jáchal Department, a municipality in northern San Juan province dependent on agriculture and livestock production, where 23,000 Argentinians live. For many years, those of us living here received our drinking water from the Jáchal River, which is the main source of irrigation for our farms and of drinking water for our livestock as well. The river also supports the ecosystem in the high Andean wetlands, which is home to a diversity of wildlife, including vicuñas, guanacos, foxes, pumas, and condors.

The Veladero mine has had several major spills since 2015, and as a result of these repeated spills, mercury contamination in the Jáchal River has reached dangerous levels. This is a serious problem that, if continued to go unchecked, will open the door to severe health problems for thousands of people. Exposure to elevated levels mercury, which is a neurotoxin, can have various health impacts including tremors, memory loss, headaches, cognitive and motor dysfunction.

The first spill at the Veladero mine occurred in September 2015. According to the Judiciary of San Juan, a burst valve, 3 inches in diameter, sent millions of liters of cyanide- and mercury-tainted water into the Potrerillos River. Jáchal and the other nearby communities only found out that their water was contaminated because a concerned Veladero mine employee sent out a WhatsApp message. The provincial government and Barrick Gold admitted the spill had occurred six days after the disaster, wasting precious time for environmental remediation.

In 2016, the United Nations Office for Project Services released a report with evidence of the impacts of that spill on the Potrerillos River wetlands, which is downstream from the Veladero mine’s leaching facilities. The Secretary of the Environment at the time, Sergio Loruss, reported seven dead guanacos on the land owned by the mine. The provincial government later fined Barrick Gold US$10 million and temporarily shut down the mine. But the mine soon reopened and has had several more spills since then.

protestors hold up banners at the mining site saying Canadian mining companies break agrentine glacier protection law

Neither the Argentinian environment ministry, nor its provincial counterpart, has taken action against the mine, say protestors from communities living downstream. Photo courtesy of Jachal No Se Toca.

The second spill occurred in September 2016 when an 18-inch diameter pipe carrying cyanide solution and mercury split. Again, Barrick Gold argued that it had committed no crime because the contamination had not reached the downstream waterways, despite mercury levels in the river almost 150 percent above the first spill. And despite evidence on the contrary, the courts in San Juan agreed with Barrick Gold.

Another incident in March 2017 caused by three ruptured 30-inch diameter pipes resulted in a dangerous 300 percent rise in mercury levels in the river.

Three cases with undeniable evidence, yet government officials and Barrick’s chief executive officers remain free from responsibility and legal charges. The justice system in San Juan never investigated these mercury contamination in the river and those responsible and neither the Argentinian Ministry of the Environment, nor its provincial counterpart, has taken action, despite our repeated appeals and despite Argentina’s mining code clearly stating that companies must cease operations after three environmental infractions. The Veladero mine is also located in a periglacial area, which is a violation of the Argentinian law, Preservation of Glaciers and Periglacial Environment.

The courts filed away our numerous complaints against the Veladero mine, while reports containing inaccurate water quality results from the Government of San Juan and Barrick Gold continue to conceal the grave contamination of the Jáchal River.

Our last remaining hope rests on the Federal Justice System of Argentina in Buenos Aires. We hope that Federal Judge Maria Servini de Cubría will soon schedule a date for oral arguments in our case against former officials from the ministries of the environment and mines for the environmental harms caused by the 2015 cyanide spill at the Veladero mine as well as their violation of the Glacier Protection Law.

Support for our cause is growing strong. In July 2023, we presented Judge Servini de Cubría with a letter signed by 71,000 people from around the world asking that our case proceed without delay. Every day that passes is another without clean and safe water for the people of Jáchal.

The mercury spills continue in the Jáchal River watershed because our government officials and the National Supreme Court of Justice have seemingly turned their backs on us to protect mining companies. In fact, the San Juan government is considering letting Barrick expand the mine and extend operations for another 10 years.

This needs to change. Help us protect our people’s water by urging the Argentinian government to uphold the law and shut down Veladero mine. You can show your support for our struggle for clean water by signing this petition.

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